A village within the borough of Colchester on the River Stour and the border of Essex and Suffolk. Dedham is frequently rated as containing some of England’s most beautiful Lowland landscape. Most particularly the water meadows of the River Stour, which passes along the northern boundary of the village forming the boundary between Essex and Suffolk. It has a central nuclear settlement around the Church and the junction of Mill Lane and the High Street. Connected to Dedham are the hamlets of The Heath and Lamb Corner.

The village forms a key part of the Dedham Vale and made famous worldwide by artists such as Constable and Gainsborough is still recognisable today. The charm of the villages, fascinating local attractions and beauty of the surrounding countryside mean there’s no shortage of places to go and things to see.

Picturesque villages, rolling farmland, rivers, meadows, ancient woodlands and a wide variety of local wildlife combine to create what many describe as the traditional English lowland landscape. Because much of East Anglia’s traditional grasslands have already been drained and ploughed for arable farming, the hedgerows and wildflower meadows of the Dedham Vale Area of Natural Beauty (AONB) are among some of England’s most precious and vulnerable pastoral landscapes, while the River Stour is an important boating and angling water.

Historical Facts

The first known settlement at Dedham is the Saxon manor recorded in Doomsday Book. From Norman times this was held by absentee French landlords until, in the fourteenth century, it reverted to the Crown. By the end of the fifteenth century, when wealthy clothiers financed the building of the present church, Dedham had become a thriving industrial town.

The wealth generated by the wool trade and especially by the late medieval cloth trade paid for the beautiful church of St Mary’s, begun in 1492 to replace a much smaller early medieval building. A lectureship had been set up around 1577 to preach the ‘pure’ word of God in this Puritan area and the lecture coinciding with the weekly market drew audiences from miles around. The Grammar School, where the celebrated painter John Constable was later a pupil, was founded at about the same time. During the seventeenth century the wool trade was in serious decline but the town’s importance as a centre for local trade was increased by its ecclesiastical significance.

The Centre of Academic Excellence

Following the decline of the wool trade, Dedham forged a new identity as a centre of academic excellence. Elizabeth I granted a license for Dedham Grammar School in 1575 and many prosperous families settled in the village so their sons (not daughters yet!) could attend school here. Centuries later the school’s most famous pupil was artist John Constable, whose father owned several mills in the area.

Another popular grammar school was Sherman’s. A descendant of Sherman’s founder emigrated to America in 1635 where he helped found the town of Dedham, Massachusetts. A commemorative pew to the American Dedham stands in the parish church.

This established Dedham’s educational reputation and for the next four centuries its various schools contributed greatly to the town’s prosperity. In the eighteenth century both the Grammar and English (elementary) Schools were rebuilt in the then fashionable red brick, many of the late medieval timber-framed houses were refronted and the community acquired its own new Assembly Rooms.

However, by the closing years of the nineteenth century the market town had dwindled to a village and was once again in decline when the first visitors and day trippers began to arrive, attracted to the landscape which had become famous as ‘Constable’s Country’.

John Constable’s Place of Inspiration

The landscape provided the inspiration for the paintings of John Constable (1776-1837), whose work made Dedham Vale famous. Constable, from East Bergholt, was educated at Dedham grammar school, where his father had milling interests. Many of his paintings and drawings portray views from Langham woods and Gun hill, often with Dedham, its church and its mill, in the background.

From the late 19th century Constable’s growing fame attracted other artists to what became known as Constable’s country. Chief among them was Sir Alfred Munnings, who lived at Castle House, Dedham, from 1919 until his death in 1959. Tom Keating, the artist and faker known for his ‘copies’ of old masters, worked in Dedham in the later 20th century.

A rare religious painting by Constable entitled The Ascension, is on display inside St Mary’s in Dedham. It was commisioned by the artist’s cousin, who reneged on the contract before the painting was finished. The Constable trust established to rescue particular paintings and works of art having connections to East Anglia, encourages donations in order to maintain and preserve The Ascension painting. The trust conducts lectures between March and April each year and you can visit their website for more information on booking.

Area of Outstanding Beauty

Dedham’s special qualities were recognized when it was designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty in 1969. Tourism continued to increase throughout the twentieth century. Especially with the arrival of mass car ownership from the 1950s onwards. Dedham and the surrounding area has an abundance of listed buildings, ranging from Grade 1 properties such as Southfields through to Grade II listings such as the Telephone Box in the High Street.

The scenery in and around Dedham featured in many of  constable’s later paintings, including his famous paintings of Willy Lott’s cottage and Flatford Mill, just over a mile downstream from Dedham. A very nice path leads across the fields to Flatfford, now owned by the National Trust. Constable’s father owned Dedham Mill, though the mill building we see today is much more modern.

One of the more popular visitor attractions is the Sir Alfred Munnings Art Museum, located in historic Castle House. Munnings, famous for his paintings of horses, served as President of the prestigious Royal Academy for 40 years, and lived and worked in this lovely red-brick house. Other historic buildings in Dedham include Southfields, a lovely timber-framed building erected in 1125, and the Assembly Rooms, built around 1744, making it among the earliest purpose-built Assembly rooms in England.

The village is busy in summer, there are a beautiful mix of Georgian houses and timber-framed inns. The Perpendicular church of St Mary is a gem. Follow the footsteps of John Constable and stroll across the fields to Flatford Mill and East Bergholt, it is highly recommended in good weather. On a long summer afternoon the river is idyllic, and you can see why Constable was drawn to paint these rustic scenes again and again!

Places to eat and drink

There are many restaurants in and around Constable country that are recommended by the Michelin Guide. There is a huge variety of cuisines and settings for you to enjoy on your which lies within the Suffolk Coast and Heaths Area of Outstanding Beauty. There are a variety of pubs which offer a cosy, friendly atmosphere and of course fantastic wines and ales are always on offer!

The Hall farm shop is the gateway to Constable country and is accessible of the A12. It has a cafe and serves breakfasts, lunches and afternoon teas. You can browse around their shop and deli and they sell hampers and gift vouchers, perfect for a gift.

Dedham Arts and Craft Centre is based in a converted church and is situated in the heart of the village. After browsing the works of 30 artisans you can take a break in the cafe on the ground floor for a coffee or spot of lunch. They provide an excellent vegetarian options and yummy cakes. The cafe opens every day and there’s free parking in the village.

How to get there

Drive: From Ipswich 14 minutes
Bus: No 93 From Willis Building, towards Stratford St Mary Anchor bus station, takes
35 minutes (32 stops) to East Bergholt, War Memorial

Dedham… Just one of the many places to visit when you stay at Stone Lodge Apartments in Ipswich